The Loss Of The Ramillies In The Atlantic Ocean

Admiral (afterwards Lord) Graves having requested leave to return to

England in 1782, was appointed by Lord Rodney to command the convoy

sent home with the numerous fleet of merchantmen from the West Indies

in the month of July.--He accordingly hoisted his flag on board the

Ramillies of 74 guns, and sailed on the 25th from Blue Fields, having

under his orders the Canada and Centaur of 74 guns each, the Pallas

frigate of 36 guns, and the following French ships, taken by Lord

Rodney and Sir Samuel Hood, out of the armament commanded by the Count

de Grasse, viz. the Ville de Paris, of 110 guns; the Glorieux and

Hector, of 74 guns each; the Ardent, Caton and Jason, of 6 guns each.

Those which were originally British ships had been in so many actions,

and so long absent from England, as to have become extremely out of

condition, while that of the prizes was still more deplorable, and the

following authentic account of the various disasters which attended

this distressed convoy will be found equally melancholy and


Soon after the fleet had sailed, the officers of the Ardent united in

signing such a representation of her miserable plight as induced

Admiral Graves to order her back to Port Royal, and the Jason, by not

putting to sea with the convoy, from want of water, never joined him

at all. The rest proceeded, and after those vessels that were bound

for New York had separated, the whole convoy was reduced to ninety-two

or three sail.

On the 8th of September the Caton springing a leak, made such alarming

complaints, that the Admiral directed her and the Pallas, also become

leaky, to bear away immediately, and keep company together, making for

Halifax, which then bore North-North-West and was but eighty-seven

leagues distant.

The afternoon of the 16th of September shewing indications of a gale

and foul weather from the south-east quarter, every preparation was

made on board the flag-ship for such an event, not only on account of

her own safety, but also as an example to the rest of the fleet. The

Admiral collected the ships about six o'clock, and brought to under

his main-sail on the larboard tack, having all his other sails furled,

and his top-gallant yards and masts lowered down.

The wind soon increasing, blew strong from the E. S. E. with a very

heavy sea, and about three o'clock in the morning of the 17th flew

suddenly round to the contrary point, blowing most tremendously, and

accompanied with rain, thunder and lightning; the Ramillies was taken

by the lee, her main-sail thrown back, her main-mast went by the

board, and mizen-mast half way up; the fore-top mast fell over the

starboard bow, the fore-yard broke in the slings, the tiller snapped

in two, and the rudder was nearly torn off. Thus was this capital

ship, from being in perfect order, reduced, within a few minutes to a

mere wreck, by the fury of the blast and the violence of the sea,

which acted in opposition to each other. The ship was pooped, the

cabin, where the Admiral lay was flooded, his cot-bed jerked down by

the violence of the shock and the ship's instantaneous revulsion, so

that he was obliged to pull on his boots half leg deep in water,

without any stockings, to huddle on his wet clothes, and repair upon

deck. On his first coming thither, he ordered two of the lieutenants

to examine into the state of the affairs below, and to keep a

sufficient number of people at the pumps, while he himself and the

captain kept the deck, to encourage the men to clear away the wreck,

which, by its constant swinging backwards and forwards by every wave

against the body of the ship, had beaten off much of the copper from

the starboard side, and exposed the seams so much to the sea that the

decayed oakum washed out, and the whole frame became at once

exceedingly porous and leaky.

At dawn of day they perceived a large ship lying under their lee,

lying upon her side, water-logged, her hands attempting to wear her by

first cutting away the mizen-mast, and then her main-mast; hoisting

her ensign, with the union downwards in order to draw the attention of

the fleet; but to no purpose, for no succour could be given, and she

very soon went down head fore-most, the fly of her ensign being the

last thing visible. This was the Dutton, formerly an East Indiaman,

and then a store-ship, commanded by a lieutenant of the navy, who in

his agitation, leaped from her deck into the sea; but, as might be

expected, was very soon overwhelmed by its billows. Twelve or

thirteen of the crew contrived, however, to slide off one of the

boats, and running with the wind, first endeavored to reach a large

ship before them, which, not being able to fetch, and afraid of

filling if they attempted to haul up for the purpose, they made up for

another ship more to the leeward, who fortunately descrying them,

threw a number of ropes, by the help of which these desperate fellows

scrambled up her sides, and fortunately saved their lives. Out of

ninety-four or five sail, seen the day before, scarcely twenty could

now be counted; of the ships of war, there were discerned the Canada,

half hull down upon the lee-quarter, having her main-top-mast and

mizen-mast gone, the main-top damaged, the main-yard aloft, and the

main-sail furled; the Centaur was far to windward, without masts,

bowsprit or rudder; and the Glorieux without fore-mast, bowsprit or

main-top-mast. Of these the two latter perished with all their crews,

excepting the captain of the Centaur, and a few of his people, who

contrived to slip off her stern into one of the boats unnoticed, and

thus escaped the fate of the rest of the crew.

The Ville de Paris appeared to have received no injury, and was

commanded by a most experienced seaman, who had made twenty-four

voyages to and from the West Indies, and had, therefore, been pitched

upon to lead the ship through the Gulf; nevertheless, she was

afterwards buried in the ocean with all on board her, consisting of

above eight hundred people. Of the convoy, besides the Dutton, before

mentioned, and the British Queen, seven others were discovered without

mast or bowsprit; eighteen lost masts and several others had


In the course of this day the Canada crossed upon and passed the

Ramillies; some of the trade attempted to follow the Canada, but she

ran at such a rate that they soon found it to be in vain, and then

returned towards the flag-ship; the Ramillies had at this time six

feet water in her hold, and the pumps would not free her, the water

having worked out the oakum, and her beams amid-ship being almost

drawn from their clamps.

The admiral, therefore, gave orders for all the buckets to be manned,

and every officer to help towards freeing the ship; the mizen-top-sail

was set upon the fore-mast, the main-top-gallant-sail on the stump of

the mizen-mast, and the tiller shipped. In this condition, by bearing

away, she scudded on at so good a rate that she held pace with some of

the merchantmen.

The day having been spent in bailing and pumping, without materially

gaining on the water, the captain in the name of the officers,

represented to the admiral the necessity of parting with the guns for

the relief of the ship, but he objected, that there would then be left

no protection for the convoy.--At length, however, after great

difficulty, he consented to their disposing of the fore-castle and

aftermost quarter-deck guns, together with some of the shot, and other

articles of very great weight. The ensuing night was employed in

bailing and endeavoring to make the pumps useful, for the ballast by

getting into the well, had choked and rendered them useless, and the

chains had broken every time they were repaired. The water had risen

to seven feet in the hold. The wind from the westward drove a vast sea

before it, and the ship being old, strained most violently.

On the morning of the 18th nothing could be seen of the Canada, she

having pushed on at her greatest speed for England. The frame of the

Ramillies having opened during the night, the admiral was prevailed

upon, by the renewed and pressing remonstrances of the officers,

although with great reluctance, to let six of the forwardmost and four

of the aftermost guns of the main-deck to be thrown overboard,

together with the remainder of those on the quarter-deck; and the ship

still continuing to open very much, he ordered tarred canvas and hides

to be nailed fore and aft from under the sills of the ports on the

main-deck under the fifth plank above, or within the water-ways, and

the crew, without orders did the same on the lower deck. Her

increasing complaints requiring still more to be done, the admiral

directed all the guns on the upper deck, the shot, both on that and

the lower deck, and various heavy stores to be thrown overboard; a

leakage in the light room of the grand magazine having almost filled

the ship forward, and there being eight feet water in the magazine,

every gentleman was compelled to take his turn at the whips, or in

handing the buckets. The ship was besides frapped from the fore-mast

to the main-mast.

Notwithstanding their utmost efforts the water still gained on them

the succeeding night, the wind blowing very hard, with extremely heavy

squalls, a part of the orlop deck fell into the hold; the ship herself

seemed to work excessively, and to settle forward.

On the morning of the 19th, under these very alarming circumstances,

the admiral commanded both the bower anchors to be cut away, all the

junk to be flung overboard, one sheet and one bower cable to be

reduced to junk and served the same way, together with every remaining

ponderous store that could be got at, and all the powder in the grand

magazine (it being damaged;) the cutter and pinnace to be broken up

and tossed overboard, the skids having already worked off the side;

every soul on board was now employed in bailing. One of the pumps was

got up, but to no purpose, for the shot-lockers being broken down,

some of the shot, as well as the ballast, had fallen into the well;

and as the weather moderated a little, every thing was made ready to

heave the lower deck guns into the sea, the admiral being anxious to

leave nothing undone for the relief of the ship.

When evening approached, there being twenty merchant ships in sight,

the officers united in beseeching him to go into one of them, but this

he positively refused to do, deeming it, as he declared, unpardonable

in a commander in chief to desert his garrison in distress; that his

living a few years longer was of very little consequence, but that, by

leaving his ship at such a time, he should discourage and slacken the

exertions of the people, by setting a very bad example. The wind

lulling somewhat during the night, all hands bailed the water, which,

at this time, was six feet fore and aft.

On the morning of the 20th the admiral ordered the spare and stream

anchors to be cut away, and within the course of the day all the lower

deck guns to be thrown overboard.--When evening came, the spirits of

the people in general, and even of the most courageous, began to fail,

and they openly expressed the utmost despair, together with the most

earnest desire of quitting the ship, lest they should founder in

her.--The admiral hereupon advanced and told them, that he and their

officers had an equal regard for their own lives, and that the

officers had no intention of deserting either them or the ship, that,

for his part, he was determined to try one night more in her, he,

therefore, hoped and intreated they would do so too, for there was

still room to imagine, that one fair day, with a moderate sea, might

enable them, by united exertions to clear and secure the well against

the encroaching ballast which washed into it; that if this could be

done, they might be able to restore the chains to the pumps, and use

them; and that then hands enough might be spared to raise jury-masts,

with which they might carry the ship to Ireland; that her appearance

alone, while she could swim, would be sufficient to protect the

remaining part of her convoy; above all, that as every thing that

could be thought of had now been done for her relief, it would be but

reasonable to wait the effect. He concluded with assuring them, that

he would make the signal directly for the trade to lie by them during

the night, which he doubted not they would comply with.

This temperate speech had the desired effect; the firmness and

confidence with which he spoke, and their reliance on his seamanship

and judgment, as well as his constant presence and attention to every

accident, had a wonderful effect upon them; they became pacified, and

returned to their duty and their labors. Since the first disaster, the

admiral had, in fact, scarcely ever quitted the deck; this they had

all observed, together with his diligence in personally inspecting

every circumstance of distress. Knowing his skill and experience they

placed great confidence in them; and he instantly made, according to

his promise, a signal for all the merchantmen.

At this period, it must be confessed, there was great reason for

alarm, and but little for hope; for all the anchors and guns,

excepting one, together with every other matter of weight, had been

thrown overboard, and yet the ship did not seem at all relieved. The

strength of the people was, likewise, so nearly exhausted, having had

no sleep since the first fatal stroke, that one half of the crew were

ordered to bail and the other to repose; so that, although the wind

was much abated, the water still gained upon them, in spite of all

their efforts, and the ship rolled and worked most prodigiously in a

most unquiet sea.

At three in the morning of the 21st, being the fourth night, the well

being quite broken in, the casks, ballast and remaining shot, rushed

together and destroyed the cylinders of the pumps; the frame and

carcase of the ship began to give way in every part, and the whole

crew exclaimed that it was impossible to keep her any longer above


In this extremity the admiral resolved within himself not to lose a

moment in removing the people whenever day-light should arrive, but

told the captain not to communicate any more of his design than that

he intended to remove the sick and lame at day-break; and for this

purpose he should call on board all the boats of the merchantmen. He,

nevertheless, gave private orders to the captain, while this was

doing, to have all the bread brought upon the quarter-deck, with a

quantity of beef, pork and flour, to settle the best distribution of

the people according to the number of the trade ships that should obey

their signal, and to allow an officer to each division of them; to

have the remaining boats launched, and as soon as the sick were

disposed of, to begin to remove the whole of the crew, with the utmost

despatch, but without risking too many in a boat.

Accordingly at dawn, the signal was made for the boats of the

merchantmen, but nobody suspected what was to follow, until the bread

was entirely removed and the sick gone.--About six o'clock, the rest

of the crew were permitted to go off, and between nine and ten, there

being nothing further to direct and regulate, the admiral himself,

after shaking hands with every officer, and leaving his barge for

their better accommodation and transport, quitted forever the

Ramillies, which had then nine feet water in her hold. He went into a

small leaky boat, loaded with bread, out of which both him and the

surgeon who accompanied him were obliged to bail the water all the

way. He was in his boots, with his surtout over his uniform, and his

countenance as calm and as composed as ever. He had, at going off,

desired a cloak, a cask of flour and a cask of water, but could get

only the flour, and he left behind all his stock, wines, furniture,

books and charts, which had cost him upwards of one thousand pounds,

being unwilling to employ even a single servant in saving or packing

up what belonged to himself alone, in a time of such general calamity,

as to appear better in that respect than any of the crew.

The admiral rowed for the Belle, Captain Forster, being the first of

the trade that had borne up to the Ramillies the preceding night in

her imminent distress, and by his anxious humanity set such an example

to his brother traders as had a powerful influence upon them--an

influence which was generally followed by sixteen others.

By three o'clock most of the crew were taken out, at which time the

Ramillies had thirteen feet water in her hold, and was evidently

foundering in every part, at half past four the captain, and first and

third lieutenants, left her, with every soul excepting the fourth

lieutenant, who staid behind only to execute the admiral's orders for

setting fire to her wreck when finally deserted. The carcase burned

rapidly, and the flames quickly reaching the powder, which was filled

in the after magazine, and had been lodged very high, in thirty-five

minutes the decks and upper works blew up with a horrid explosion and

cloud of smoke, while the lower part of the hull was precipitated to

the bottom of the ocean.

At this time the admiral, in the Belle, stood for the wreck to see

his last orders executed, as well as to succour any boats that might

be too full of men, the swell of the sea being prodigious, although

the weather had been moderate ever since noon of the foregoing day.

There were, however, at intervals, some squalls, with threats of the

weather soon becoming violent. It was not long before they were

realized, for within two hours after the last of the crew were put on

board their respective ships, the wind rose to a great height, and so

continued, with intermission, for six or seven successive days, so

that no boat could, during that time, have lived in the water. On

such a small interval depended the salvation of more than six hundred

lives! Indeed, during the four days immediately preceding this

catastrophe, it blew such a strong gale, and such a heavy sea

followed the Ramillies, that it was always necessary to keep her with

the wind upon her quarter, with seldom more than the sprit-sail

hoisted upon her fore-mast, and at times with no sail at all, in

which state she would run at the rate of six miles an hour. Whenever

the main-top-gallant-sail was set on the stump of the mizen-mast she

commonly griped too much, so as to render the steerage very

difficult, and yet this had been carried, whenever it could be, in

order to keep pace with the merchantmen, the slowest of which went

nearly as fast under their bare poles.

Even in running thus the Ramillies rolled prodigiously, and as she

grew lighter every day her motion became the more uneasy, so that the

men could scarcely stand to their work, or keep their legs without

something to lay hold by. There was no such thing as real repose for

them when sitting or lying down upon deck, nor steadiness enough to

eat or drink with any security; no meat could be dressed, nor did any

man or officer go into bed. Until the afternoon of the 20th there was

no venturing to bring her to, even for a boat to come on board; but,

notwithstanding this desperate condition, when some were hourly

dropping through fatigue and want of sleep, and the decks were covered

with water, the whole of the crew behaved with the utmost obedience,

attention and sobriety, and remitted no possible exertion for the

preservation of the ship.

Upon their separation taking place, the officers, who were distributed

with portions of the crew among the Jamaica-men, had orders

respectively to deliver them to the first man of war or tender they

should meet with, and to acquaint the Secretary of the Admiralty, by

the earliest opportunity, of their proceedings. A pendant was hoisted

on board the Belle, by way of distinction, that she might, if

possible, lead the rest. Some of the trade kept with her, and others

made the best of their way, apprehensive lest they should soon fall

short of provisions, as they had so many more to feed.

The Silver Eel transport, which had sailed from Bluefields with the

invalids of Sir George Rodney's fleet, and was under the command of a

lieutenant of the navy, had been ordered to keep near the Ramillies.

That ship was accordingly at hand on the 21st of September, the day of

her destruction, and in consequence of several deaths on the passage

had room enough for the reception of all who were now ailing or

maimed, and was therefore charged with them, being properly fitted for

their accommodation.

The Silver Eel parted from the admiral in latitude 42 48 N. and

longitude 45 19 W. after seeing the Ramillies demolished, and being

ordered to make for the first port, ran into Falmouth the 6th of

October, on the afternoon of which day, one of the trade ships, with a

midshipman and sixteen of the crew of the Ramillies, reached Plymouth

Sound. Another of the same convoy, having on board another part of the

crew, with the captain and first lieutenant, anchored in the same

place before day-light the next morning. The Canada, however, having

exerted her utmost speed, had, prior to all these, on the 4th of the

same month got to Portsmouth, where she spread the news of the

dispersion of this miserable fleet, which being conveyed to France,

her privateers immediately put to sea in hopes of making prizes of

them. Some of the Jamaica-men, with part of the crew of the Ramillies,

fell into their hands; two of the West Indiamen were captured in sight

of the Belle, but she herself with the admiral and thirty-three of his

crew, arrived safe, though singly, on the 10th of October in Cork

harbor, where was the Myrmidon frigate. The admiral immediately

hoisted his flag on board the latter, and sailing with the first fair

wind, arrived, on the 17th, in Plymouth Sound, apparently in good

health, but with a settled oppression upon his breast, from having

been so long and so dreadfully exposed upon the deck of the Ramillies

in the horrid night when she was first overtaken by the storm; nor

could he remove that complaint for upwards of six months. He brought

away with him nothing but a few of his private papers, the rest of his

effects having shared the same fate as his ship.

It was calculated that by the destruction of the fleet, upwards of

twenty one thousand five hundred persons perished. The loss of

property has been estimated by the British Government to be upwards of

L20,000,000. The gale, which continued for six days, was the most

tremendous one on record.

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